Facebook: Healthy or Unhealthy Narcissism?

by Shonnie Brown, MFT

Facebook is undoubtedly an interesting phenomenon for a psychotherapist's exploration. And I admit to being on Facebook. I've read accounts of many users' attraction and subsequent revulsion to online social networking. And I certainly feel my own ambivalence. It may be worthwhile to ask yourself what your intention is on Facebook. Is your Facebook persona congruent with the self that you feel yourself to be? What do your Facebook habits tell you about your self-esteem or lack thereof?

Facebook and Narcissism

The book "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement" by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D. speaks quite critically on the subject of Facebook as social networking for narcissists. What I find most interesting is that the book reminds us that Facebook (as well as MySpace) originated among teenagers (lacking adult psychological development) before progressing into full-fledged use by the adult population. The authors quote college students as saying that Facebook is "attention seeking," all about "broadcasting who I am," and a venue for the most socially competent people to document their popularity as well as become "obsessed with other people's narcissism." The authors also state that the very structure of Facebook is designed to "reward the skills of the narcissist" through self-promotion, flattering photos and competition for the most friends. The fact that true narcissists often do not get along well with others isn't a problem on Facebook, because there is no genuine interaction. In fact, often one does not even know one's Facebook "friends." For these people, it may be all about status and how one appears to others. According to the authors, Facebook and other social networking sites "reinforce narcissism in an endless loop."

Healthy and Unhealthy Narcissism

People with a healthy degree of narcissism have grown beyond the "me as the center of the universe" developmental stage of a child and have learned to value themselves in appropriate relationship to others. Healthy narcissism acknowledges one's strengths and unique talents as well as those of others. Good self-esteem, belief in one's ability to make healthy choices and set appropriate boundaries are all part of healthy narcissism. People with a healthy degree of narcissism will compete, but not be devastated by loss. They do not generally see themselves as above or beneath others and they understand we live in a world of give and take, compromise and mutuality.

Unhealthy narcissists have developed a persona of superiority, a need to control and a sense of being at the center of the universe. Narcissists are often people in power, but also men and women who have positioned themselves as highly respected community members. They are usually charming, with a veneer of compassion, generosity and friendliness. But how they feel inside or behave in intimate relationship may be entirely different. The false self they show the world masks a deeply buried contemptuous self who is in desperate need of love and approval.

Facebook Personas

It has been interesting for me to notice various exhibitions of narcissism on Facebook. I can divide my Facebook friends into categories.
  1. Adults who joined Facebook under others' pressure and just don't use it.
  2. Members who mostly use Facebook to exchange photos and news with family and close friends.
  3. Members who do interesting things and have a "following."
  4. Members who have developed a Facebook niche. They post things that they like and hope others will like within that niche.
  5. Members whose niche has become a mission. They feel compelled to post messages all day long on their issue.
  6. Big social networkers: people who are running for political office or feel that they must let the public know what they are doing several times per day as part of their job.
  7. Compulsive networkers who may have nothing of particular value to say but need the ongoing reflection by others.

A Questionnaire

It is not my job to judge or diagnosis which of my Facebook "friends" use social networking to reap narcissistic rewards. But here are some questions I have devised for people to ask themselves in determining their own motivations with Facebook:
  1. How does Facebook serve my needs and the needs of others?
  2. Am I choosing Facebook over personal interaction? Why?
  3. How would I be using my time if I were not on Facebook?
  4. Do I feel empty when I think of my life without Facebook?
  5. Do I feel compelled to post everyday? More often?
  6. Is my Facebook persona congruent with the "me" that real friends know?
  7. Do I view my number of friends as meaningful?

Facebookers Speak Up

Recently I asked my Facebook friends to respond to the question, "Why do you use Facebook and do you see that use as healthy? Why or why not?" These are some of their replies (names protected for confidentiality):
Megan stated: "I vowed to only post and comment on topics that raise awareness on the health of the planet... anything about (her primary interest), the natural world around me, etc.... and I like to amplify the information I receive (on these topics)."

Jane replied: "I use Facebook as a central location where I can see news and articles posted by organizations I support... Using Facebook makes me feel more connected to both my local community and the larger community of people with similar interests."

Karen said: "I use Facebook because I'm horrible at keeping in touch with people. I love that I can see what my friends (and their kids) are doing without having to talk on the phone..."

Richard said: "I like to let people know what I'm doing and educate them about what's going on in the world."

Bill said: "My goal is to have 5,000 Facebook friends."

Conclusion

My friend, Gail, a social/political activist, uses Facebook to put forth her agenda in a way that is completely congruent with who she is. Two other friends are running for political office. They use Facebook all day long to do what politicians do--promote their agendas and publicize what they're doing. Others announce their luxury vacations and tell us what wine they are pairing with what food or what group they joined and want us to join too. For many teenagers and adults, their Facebook pages read like a high school yearbook. For others, Facebook is an opportunity to help create a better society. My observations, combined with the authors' research, seem to indicate that Facebook is a mirror that reflects each individual's level of psychological and emotional development. You may remain a narcissistic teenager on Facebook. You may become an adult and work to make this world a better place. Or, like many of us, you may demonstrate a bit of both.

©2005-2015 Shonnie Brown, Chinn Street Counseling Center; all rights reserved.